- Noj Barker, 63, from Northamptonshire has gone viral with his ‘dot art’
Most creative geniuses have a seminal moment; a realisation that they have a God-given talent, a burning need to explore it and a determination that nothing must get in their way.
For jazz legend Miles Davis it was being given a trumpet for his 13th birthday.
For George Michael, it was finding a record player in the garage and rushing up to his bedroom to write his first song, aged six.
Edouard Manet received his calling during a childhood trip to the Louvre.
But for Noj Barker, 63, a father-of-four from Northamptonshire who has recently gone viral with his extraordinary ‘dot art’ – one video alone has 27.4 million views – the epiphany came on a rainy family holiday in Ibiza in 2007, when he started painting with his young children.
As they doodled, he filled a page with thick, long stripes. Then when they dried, he added smaller, thinner stripes on top. And, well, just kept going. ‘It was the first time in my life that I had total certainty,’ Noj says.
‘Suddenly something began to click, because, finally, I knew what to do.’
It was a moment, he says, that changed everything. So at the end of the holiday, he had his stripy creation framed. ‘I was very proud of it. I knew it would be valuable one day.’
His new life was set and he has been painting ever since, every hour he can find – 40, 50, often 80 hours a week. ‘I became obsessed. I am quite OCD,’ he laughs. Just a bit…
At first, it was all stripes. But soon, after discovering round-ended brushes – what a revelation! – he graduated to dots.
Hundreds, thousands, now surely, millions upon millions of dots, judging by my visit to his large rambling rented home in Northamptonshire, where every wall is festooned in dotty pictures – in the kitchen, hallway, loo.
Some, teeny and intricate, others vast and psychedelic. ‘I fall deeply in love with the colours I’m working with,’ he says. ‘The shades I’m creating. Sometimes it feels quite hallucinogenic. Trance-like. Mind-altering, almost.’ Which might all sound a teeny bit niche, but Noj’s dot pictures have huge appeal.
They are currently on display in both Heathrow and Gatwick airports and the exclusive Ivy Club in London, costing from about £2,500 each. Noj is in the process of launching a collaboration with Parisian hat designer Anthony Peto and has already produced dotty berets, shirts, dresses, shorts, even a teeny dotty bikini, which his gorgeous wife Katy, a former model, has worn in dotty solidarity.
But it is online where his work really makes waves. He already had thousands of social media followers – people for whom art is not a dusty old masterpiece hung in a gallery, but something zippy and arresting to look at on their smartphone – even before the video of him quietly painting went viral.
‘It’s crazy. It’s mad. Twenty-seven million! That’s seven million more than have watched any Banksy video!’ he tells me in delight. ‘That’s one in every 400 adults in the world, looking at my dots!’
The video itself seems rather slight – just a few seconds, filmed by his 15-year-old daughter Violet, while he was working at the kitchen table. ‘He didn’t even know I was filming, I just zoomed in as he painted,’ she says.
But by the end of the day it had two million hits and has been rising steadily ever since. ‘I check the numbers obsessively.’
And, presumably, the comments.
‘Wow, this is proper art!’
‘How do I become dot man?’
‘The closer you look, deep, man!’
It seems that an awful lot of people really love looking at dots (on dots, on dots) online.
As usual though, not everyone is quite so enchanted.
Some claim it’s all ‘just a load of old dots’. Others insist he must be ‘bloody mad’.
A few suggest his time might be better spent at art school.
Because while Noj has had plenty of incarnations in his 63 years – desperately unhappy child, ballet dancer, recruitment consultant, property developer, gastro pub owner and very enthusiastic party-goer in the cool scene of 1990s London with his mates, actors Gerard Butler, Steve Coogan and anyone else who’d join in – he had no artistic training. ‘I’d never painted. Barely even picked up a brush until that holiday,’ he says.
‘Though I’d always been interested in art and had a lot of friends in the art world.’ Sadly, not all of them have welcomed his dots with open arms. One was a former close friend and the founder of the now famous Frieze Art Fair, an annual contemporary art event which started in London in 2003.
‘He came and looked at my dots and said, ‘But what’s it all about? Just go to art school!
‘He didn’t get it at all. It made me absolutely livid!’
Noj’s brother – another avid art collector – wasn’t a fan, either. ‘He was incredibly condescending about my art,’ he says. ‘But now he’s seeing it has its place.’
But is Noj crushed by the negative reaction of experts? Not at all. It simply bounces off him.
Because, by happy chance, his sudden burning, visceral need to paint dots was accompanied by an extraordinary self-belief, conviction and sense of purpose. ‘I love that I’ve created something that’s biological, that’s evolutionary. I want it to last for ever.’
And it turned out that he was on to something.
There was an exhibition in London in 2008. Another in a space in the Saatchi Gallery in London. A show in Holland Park in 2021. Another in Dubai. A lot of dots, if not that much money so far.
‘I don’t need to see any other art. I don’t need inspiration from other artists,’ he says. ‘In fact, I just don’t understand why anyone who paints doesn’t paint like this. It has made me feel complete.’
Not – thanks to his dismal childhood – something he has ever felt before. Even when he met his wonderful wife Katy (at a Soho House party in 1999) and had their four children plus two dogs, it felt as if he was still searching for something. Some form of purpose and resolution, possibly control. Born in 1960, Noj – christened Jonathan – was the youngest of four children in a rather staid and middleclass family in Hertfordshire.
Too middle-class, it turned out, for their mother, who moved with her children to Primrose Hill in London, where she embraced the 60s with jobs at Radio Caroline and with Jeremy Thorpe, a doomed affair with Michael Foot’s brother and, by all accounts, quite a few of his peers in the House of Lords, and a lot of partying that wasn’t brilliantly conducive to parenting.
‘She was very exciting but completely self-obsessed,’ says Noj.
A bitter custody battle followed – ‘we were living in the reverberations of a civil war’ – which their father won, but wasn’t sure how to look after them, so hired a nanny to do that.
Then, when Noj was just ten, his mother took her own life, aged 39. Six months later, his father’s sister did the same. His older sister even appeared on the front page of The Sun – such was the surprise that a father had won custody – under the headline, ‘Heartbreak of an 11-year-old’.
‘I completely lost my childhood,’ he says today.
Things only got worse when he was sent to Eton. ‘I had no friends at all. I was utterly clueless.
‘Unnoticeable. I had a terrible, terrible time and was horribly bullied. My whole childhood was a complete shambles.’
It was only when he left school, aged 16, that he finally started living. ‘My life opened up. I started meeting interesting people.
‘I was dazzled by it all. Dazzled by life,’ he says.
Credit to him that he was able to embrace it all after such darkness. But starved of joy, he rushed from one passion to the next – dance on Italian TV shows and a stint in South Korea, property development, music, his wonderful family, religion and, for 16 years now, the dots. He cheerfully admits that he is totally obsessed, but is also surprisingly orderly in his approach – a soothing control after the chaos of so much of his life.
Every dot is painstakingly laid out. So first, he paints 300, then three hundred more, intersecting those. ‘I’ll count them because I want equanimity.’
Then another 300. And so on and so forth. Dots on dots on dots, with smaller and smaller brushes, until he’s down to cocktail sticks and toothpicks – in colourful acrylics, little mountain ranges of colour – shiny, immersive, mesmerising and, as it turns out, very, very time-consuming.
‘I know it’s done when I’m bloody exhausted and there’s nowhere else to fit a dot,’ he says.
A single picture can take anything between 50 hours and nine months. Close up, they are exceptionally beautiful and with the layers and layers of dots, surprisingly three dimensional. ‘I attach tremendous significance to each dot. They become a life force on their own. They represent something vital which must be continued – almost like a religious ritual.’
Of course, Noj is not the first artist to have taken solace, comfort, therapy perhaps, in dots.
He tells me he feels a great affinity for the famous – and very obsessive – Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, whose work in dots was also triggered by a desire to escape pyschological trauma.
‘Though she does live in a mental institution!’ he says.
Noj is rather more blessed. He lives in the bosom of his wonderfully loving family and, most importantly, has the support of Katy, an exceptional woman who has embraced his new purpose and taken the whole family on this very dotty journey.
‘How she has dealt with me, I have no idea,’ says Noj.
‘They all have. My family is the most important thing to me and a constant support.’ So they all happily model his dotty clothes, wear dotty hats at a rakish angle and host dotty dinner parties where, after a few glasses of wine, everyone is decked out in dots.
His children (now aged between 12 and 23) all help him with his social media, to raise his profile.
Of course, it can’t always have been easy for Katy.
‘It never stops. It’s all-consuming. The dots just keep coming,’ she says simply.
‘And the way he speaks about his paintings – he’s just as passionate about them as when he started. It’s as if each one is another piece of the puzzle for his all-consuming journey that he cannot stop.’
But she adores her extraordinary husband and his busy, fizzing brain and is happy to support him.
‘I am reconciled to the dots and that’s just the way life is.
‘I truly am at peace with them and him,’ she says.
‘But it’s not for the faint-hearted, being married to an artist!’
Not least because money is really tight now, interest rates are sky high and the bills are piling up.
So the Instagram success couldn’t have come at a better time, or happened to a nicer family. They just need to convert it somehow into good hard sales.
And who knows, soon we might see Noj dotted trainers, T-shirts, pencil cases. Maybe even a Noj Barker hanging in Tate Modern.
That would certainly sock it to his sniffy old mates in the art world. And help pay the bills.